Isaiah 29: Man-made Worship

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Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Isaiah 29 likely takes place during Hezekiah’s reign and is part of a series of woes in chapters 28-33 against those who oppose God’s word.

Key verses:

Isa. 29:13-14 – The Lord said: Because these people approach Me with their mouths to honor Me with lip-service – yet their hearts are far from Me, and their worship [consists of] man–made rules learned [by rote] – therefore I will again confound these people with wonder after wonder. The wisdom of their wise men will vanish, and the understanding of the perceptive will be hidden.

Quick summary:

Lawrence O. Richards writes: “Jerusalem will be besieged and brought low (29:1–4), although God will at last fight against Israel’s enemies (vv. 5–9). Until then God’s people will be blind to the vision, for their hearts are far from God (vv. 10–16). One day the mockers will be destroyed. Then a shamed Israel will at last stand in awe of God and gain the understanding she now so tragically lacks (vv. 17–24)” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 425).

Take note:

Jesus quotes verse 13 to describe the hypocritical Pharisees: “Then the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why don’t Your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ritually unclean hands?’ He answered them, ‘Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men’” (Mark 7:5-7).

The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day are guilty of the same empty formalism – if not the idolatry – that brought God’s wrath down on Judah. In a similar manner, the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as Messiah in favor of their traditions would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D.

Judgment and Reprieve (Isa. 29:1-8)

The name “Ariel” is obscure and could mean “alter hearth” or “lion of God.” In any case, the reference clearly is to Jerusalem, as verse 1 confirms by calling it “the city where David camped” (see 2 Sam. 5:7, 9, 13) and as verse 8 confirms by identifying Ariel as “Mount Zion.” “Many interpreters say Ariel means ‘lion of God,’ in which case the city is seen as a strong, lionlike city. Ariel may also be translated ‘altar hearth,’ as in Isaiah 29:2; Ezekiel 43:15-16. Jerusalem is the place where the altar of burnt offering was located in the temple. Though Jerusalem is where festivals were celebrated before God (Isa. 29:1), the city would be besieged and fighting and bloodshed would turn it into a virtual altar hearth” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1078).

The Lord is going to use the city’s enemies to bring judgment on her. Four times in verses 2-3 Yahweh uses the personal pronoun “I” to make it clear He is sovereign over the affairs of men. The Lord will “oppress Ariel,” resulting in “mourning and crying.” He will “camp in a circle” around Jerusalem and “besiege” it with “earth ramps” and “siege towers” – all for the purpose of bringing His people back to Him.

In the end, however, the Lord of Hosts will miraculously deliver Ariel from certain defeat. This is partially fulfilled in 701 B.C. as the Lord strikes dead 185,000 Assyrians encamped around the city (Isa. 37:33-37). But the gathering of nations (vv. 5, 7-8) and the spectacular signs (v. 6) suggest a later, and greater, event, likely God’s deliverance of the Jews from her enemies at the time of Christ’s return. Warren Wiersbe observes, “This is what prophetic students call ‘the battle of Armageddon,’ though that title is not used in Scripture (Rev. 14:14–20; 16:13–21). When it looks as though the city is about to fall, and the enemy armies are sure of victory, Jesus Christ will return and deliver His people (19:11–21). The enemy victory will vanish” (Be Comforted, S. Is 29:1).

Israel’s Darkness Dispelled (Isa. 29:9-24)

This section of Isaiah’s prophecy contrasts Jerusalem’s present spiritual stupor with its future spiritual understanding. Like drunkards, the people stumble about, unable to grasp the reality of their situation as God’s people under God’s judgment. Their inability to discern God’s message is itself a judgment from the Lord, who has poured out on the people an “overwhelming urge to sleep,” and has shut the eyes of the prophets and covered the heads of the seers (v. 10).

The people are engaged in a cold and ritualistic form of man-made worship but do not honor the Lord with heart-felt adoration. Rather than devotion to God’s law, they pursue a legalistic path to secure His blessings. This is a pattern often repeated throughout Jewish history, perhaps most clearly in the days of Jesus, who quotes Isa. 29:13 to the scribes and Pharisees who challenge His disciples’ lack of conformity to the traditions of the elders (Matt. 15:8-9; Mark 7:6-7). As a result of Jerusalem’s cold-hearted worship, Isaiah says the Lord will take away wisdom from the wise men and understanding from the perceptive ones (v. 14).

The Lord then pronounces woe on those who believe they can perform their evil deeds in secret. Isaiah likens such people to clay pots challenging the creative power and wisdom of the potter. “You have turned things around,” he says, “as if the potter were the same as the clay” (v. 16). The people are demonstrating through their actions that they know very little, while Isaiah reminds them that God knows everything. Isaiah returns to the theme of the potter and the clay in Isa. 45:9; 64:8.

Beginning with verse 17, however, Isaiah looks expectantly toward the future. The phrase “in just a little while” is a reference to the millennial kingdom. Some commentators believe these words refer to the destruction of the Assyrian army a few years after this prophecy (Isa. 37:36), but the promise of more universal judgment and blessing seems to fit the days of the Messiah better than Jerusalem’s deliverance from an invading army. When the millennium comes, the deaf will hear and the blind will see (Isa. 32:3; 35:5). Jesus gives us a foretaste of that coming age in His miracles, which include opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. There also seems to be a spiritual application in this passage. Though the Lord is judging the people in Isaiah’s day with a spiritual stupor, in the future He will open their spiritual eyes and ears so they understand His ways.

The attitude of God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem will be transformed. They will no longer be humiliated by foreign domination or scuttled in their man-made plans for peace and security. Instead, they will honor the Lord’s name and “stand in awe of the God of Israel” (v. 23). “The Lord’s delivering them from Sennacherib was a foretaste of the ultimate deliverance they will experience. People who are wayward and who complain will change and will accept instruction. No longer will blindness prevail; then they will know God’s ways” (Walvoord and Zuck, S. 1:1079).

Closing Thought

Warren Wiersbe comments: “Why were the people of Jerusalem so ignorant of what was going on? Their hearts were far from God (Isa. 29:13). They went through the outward forms of worship and faithfully kept the annual feasts … but it was not a true worship of God (Matt. 15:1–9). Going to the temple was the popular thing to do, but most of the people did not take their worship seriously. Therefore, God sent a ‘spiritual blindness’ and stupor on His people so that they could not understand their own Law. Such blindness persists today (Rom. 11:8; 2 Cor. 3:13–18). If people will not accept the truth, then they must become more and more blind and accept lies (See John 9:39–41 and 2 Thes. 2:1–12.)” (Be Comforted, S. Is 29:1).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips